Category Archives: Evil and Suffering

The Argument from Personal Misunderstanding

AF5WTAI seem to have gotten a bit sidetracked from Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”. The quick refresher is that Mackie had been discussing the problem of evil, and that he is now turning to Alvin Plantinga’s famous free will defense.

And, for those unfamiliar with it, the best summary of the free will defense I’ve ever encountered is in a short video.

Mackie counters Plantinga by attacking the idea that it is logically necessary that people have something wrong with our “essences”. As Plantinga himself points out in his response, he was never talking about essences. But this isn’t the key issue.

Mackie keeps insisting that it is logically possible that even a finite person could always choose to do the right thing, but this simply misses the point. What he needs to show isn’t that this is logically possible, but that it is logically compatible with the other requirements facing God (such as more that a few people in existence, spiritual growth, etc). He doesn’t even address this response.

But, personally, I’m more concerned about the fact he hasn’t even shown that this really is logically possible. He’s simply claimed this, but not taken a terribly close look at the situation.

That is, he seems to have a very sloppy understanding of morality. “Choosing to do the right thing”, after all, is pretty misleading. As finite creatures, we are all incomplete; none of us understand all spiritual truths perfectly. Hence, nothing we do, say, or think is ever purely good (or purely evil). While we are certainly capable of being more or less good, I don’t see how it is possible to be perfectly good while still being finite.

And any moment in which one isn’t being perfectly, absolutely, completely good is a moment where one isn’t “choosing the good” in the sense that Mackie needs it to be for his argument to work.

Of course, Plantinga and others have added that there are feasibility issues, even for an omnipotent being, that exist above and beyond this. Mackie is free to believe that these issues will someday be solved, but he has not solved them.

Mackie then goes on to discuss the idea that God may not know what actions people will take until they are taken. I’ll let this alone, as I reject that view. Rather, I’ll skip to his conclusion. First, he claims that every defense against the problem of evil has failed. Again, he is free to believe what he likes, but an unsupported assertion of a claim that doesn’t actually counter Plantinga’s argument is hardly a reason to think this.

And, second, I use the phrase “believe what he likes” advisedly. Mackie goes on to say that, while he admits that there are forms of theism that could get around this attack, the argument is practically useful because “each of the changes that would make theism more coherent would also do away with some of its attraction”.

This is where we begin to see something less objective than a detached search for the truth. None of us really are detached, of course. But (as overtures of objectivity are often made in such debates) it needs to be pointed out that Mackie is, like any of us seeking to “win converts”–seeking to dissuade people from a position he agrees is coherent.

And, personally, I find the more coherent versions of theism more attractive (not the least because I find coherence attractive). Those who seek to “refute” theism this way can only do so by arbitrarily demanding that we ignore the best (and most attractive) forms of it.

I don’t, by the way, think one should judge Mackie too harshly for this. He’s only doing what any one of us would do. I think it would would be much more helpful if all sides would simply admit this–that we all have emotional motivations.

Pretending that personal zeal and trendy memes are the same as the results of objective research is, after all, one of my chief complaints with the New Atheists.


From Here to Eternity

Deborah-Kerr-and-Burt-Lancaster-in-From-Here-To-Eternity-19531In discussing the problem of evil, Mackie touches on the fact that those who experience the most evil and suffering in their lives seem to be the most religious. Mackie, of course, makes the very reasonable point that this is not a logical answer to the problem of evil.

It is, however, a significant issue.

That is, those who are most familiar with evil seem to be aware that religion is the only way to explain the existence of evil at all. Atheists, after all, dismiss the matter as merely subjective, simply denying any ontological truth to evil.

As such, evil really seems to be evidence in favor of theism, not against it.

Of course, the materialist can go on denying the existence of evil as such, but this puts him/her in an awkward position in presenting the problem of evil. Of course, I’ve just addressed Mackie’s attempt to show that it is an inconsistency within theism–without claiming that evil actually exists.

And that seems the only alternative to presenting a secular explanation for real evil (and not simply subjective evil).

But, Mackie, in seeking a contradiction within theism, questions whether or not religion can point to genuine goods which both require and outbalance the evil in the world. But this is trivially easy.

Mackie has already agreed that humans would have no concept of good were it not for our experience of evil. So, it seems that he implicitly agrees that humans would have no basis for choosing goodness (which is, on the theist view he’s considering, synonymous with God) if we had no experience of the difference between good and evil.

Of course, Mackie ostensibly insists otherwise–that God’s omnipotence would allow him to do this. But this is far too glib. Not only does it take back, without explanation, the concession that was just made, but it seems to require forgetting an earlier issue.

That is, Mackie agrees that omnipotence does not entail the ability to do the logically impossible. And it is a logical contradiction to make someone freely do something. As such, omnipotence is of no help to God in creating a world where we choose him without any real, existential concept of what choice we’re making. We need to experience “not God” before we can rightly be said to have a reason to choose God freely.

And this more than answers Mackie’s question.

If one is asking about the internal consistency of traditional theism (which is, again, the only challenge a relativist like Mackie can make), it is no small point that choosing goodness (which, given theism, is God) would be an infinite good, stretched over infinite time.

It seems very straight-forward that this would counterbalance any evil in the world as it is (as that evil is finite). And it seems that only a very short-sighted perspective, like the child who can’t see what good doing homework could possibly bring about, could keep one from seeing that the value of a religion can’t be entirely judged by this-world thinking.

This is the truth that those who suffer greatly can see, and far too many (comfortable in our wealth) cannot. We, it could be argued, so rarely think about eternity because we simply don’t want to see it.


These Goal Posts are Heavy!

football_players_moving_the_goalpost_450In attempting to use the problem of evil as an argument against theism, you’ll recall, Mackie agreed that he has no basis for saying that evil actually exists. Rather, he’s (purportedly) pointing out a logical contradiction between the theists’ position. We believe that evil exists (in some form or another), and he means to show that this contradicts our belief in a good God.

And this is important to keep in mind, because Mackie frequently argues by requesting evidence for the theist’s position. Thus, he seems to be shifting his goal posts as the momentary need arises.

Similarly, he argues from his own inability to picture reasons why a claim might be true. He answers the claim that freedom, in the end, brings about more good than bad with “whatever the valuable, other, aspects or consequences of freedom may be, it is at least logically possible that they should exist without such variation, that is, without bad choices actually being made”.

This section is peppered with this kind of thinking, and it is (whether he realizes it or not) an abandonment of his argument. Simply saying that something is possible does not mean that the theist has contradicted herself.

There are answers that could be given (such as the idea that our having knowledge that our choices are of moral significance is deeply important to God). But the point isn’t whether the theist can show that these are, at the end of the day, good answers. To show a true logical contradiction, Mackie needs to show that they can’t possibly be correct.

He also thinks that the theist needs to prove that we need libertarian free will to make real choices. Some people (the compatiblists) are convinced that one can be said to have free will, even though one’s decisions are completely determined by one’s brain chemistry and the corresponding laws of science.

Most people don’t see that as free will at all. Mackie is allowed to disagree if he’d like, but he is not allowed, in “pointing out a contradiction within theism” to insist that the theist needs to offer evidence that compatibilism is wrong. Yet he does exactly that.

To be fair to Mackie, he does, after a couple of pages on this, admit that this argument is fallacious. But this leaves one wondering why he included these pages at all. Certainly, it serves no purpose but (whether intentionally or not) to act as a rhetorical flourish, leaving the reader feel that theism has other problems that aren’t being answered by the free will defense.

Of course, theists have answered those problems elsewhere, but Mackie includes no two-page digression on those answers.

Instead, he offers an incorrect view of what theists mean by free will.

I don’t think this is intentional, but it is a problem nonetheless. Mackie seems unable to envision any description of human choice other than determinism and randomness (a la Copenhagen quantum mechanics).

He goes on to say that none of these help the believer in libertarian free will. Indeed, they do not for the very simple reason that he has left the actual position of libertarian free will off his list of possibilities.

Essentially, he’s still thinking like a materialist. He’s left out the possibility that the mind could be something other than the interaction of neurons (as materialists envision the interaction of neurons). Of course this leaves him with only these options, but this is precisely what the libertarian denies.

Mackie continues on for a few more pages, ostensibly trying to figure out what is meant by “free will”, but arguing at every turn that such things need to be proved.

And this is, again, shifting goal posts. Mackie is claiming to have seen a logical contradiction in the theist’s position. He, therefore, needs to show us a contradiction, not merely request more proof of the sub-points within that position.

At this point Mackie returns to the main argument “confident that it is not logically impossible that men should be such that they always freely choose the good”. But this, itself, a misstatement of the argument. It was never about logical impossibility, but about the logical fit to the goals of God.

Nor do I see anywhere that Mackie has actually given a reason for the confidence anyway. What he has done is insist that the theist prove that his position is impossible–and completely misunderstood the arguments given.

But, Mackie isn’t quite finished; he then moves to Plantinga’s (well-known) version of the argument. I’ll discuss that in a later post.


Blurring the Lines of Distinction

blurred_focusGetting back to the discussion of J.L. Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we come to the famous problem of evil. Here, Mackie seems to alternate between a very reasonable and a very sloppy approach.

He begins with the reasonable, laying out the argument and agreeing that there is no explicit contradiction between the idea of a good God and the existence of evil. But there is, he claims, a contradiction when one adds the idea that a good and omnipotent God would be both able and willing to remove evil from the world.

This strikes me as already a bit sloppy, in that Mackie has endorsed a moral subjectivist position–and hasn’t otherwise presented a theory of objective morality to rival theistic explanations. As such, he cannot actually claim that evil exists in an objective sense, but only things that humans find personally distasteful.

As a non-human, God is not morally bound by human opinion, however.

But Mackie seems to understand this. Swinging back to a reasonable approach, he clarifies that he is arguing that there is an internal inconsistency in traditional theism. It doesn’t matter, then, whether or not evil actually exists. The point is that theism claims that it does, and this (purportedly) contradicts the notion of a loving God.

This is a key move, however, because it is only by shifting this goalpost that Mackie can make a case against theism.

First, however, he agrees with the theist that omnipotence doesn’t include the ability to do the logically impossible. I’ve met quite a few who demand otherwise–and have even insinuated that this “limit” on omnipotence is simply a retreat in the face of the problem of evil.

To those that know the history of theology, it is no such thing, but set that aside. The real point is that it isn’t needed to address the problem of evil. In fact, it is only because the theist agrees that God can’t to the logically impossible that there is any problem of evil at all.

Even if it could be shown that evil is a contradiction of a good God, all the theist would have to say is “sure, that’s a logical impossibility, but God can do  the logically impossible”.

The point isn’t that theistic philosophers say this (with the exception of Anslem, I can’t think of any who would). The point is that, for the problem of evil to even get off the ground, one has to assume that God is bound by what is logical possible.

And this is perfectly reasonable. Logical contradictions aren’t things–such as acts that simply can’t be done–they are meaningless arrangements of words.

Mackie does not dispute this, but he does throw out another straw man. I’ll not get into it here, as I’ve never heard anyone actually give the argument. But it is very significant that Mackie, after pointing out the silliness of the argument, also claims that (even if it were true) it would only defend necessary and minute amounts of evil.

This is important because Mackie is drifting away from the claim that there is a logical contradiction here, and into a different (though similar) argument. Generally called the “probabilistic problem of evil”, it is the claim that, while there’s no logical issue, there’s just too darn much evil in the world to believe in God.

I agree that this issue should be addressed, but Mackie doesn’t seem to be aware that it is a different issue. As such, he immediately begins confusing issues. Theists have offered many explanations, one of which is the pointing out how often good things come from evil.

But Mackie insists that this does not address the contradiction named earlier. Indeed it does not, because it is not addressed to that contradiction, but rather to the probabilistic argument he’s switched to making. And, while I hardly think it is a complete answer in itself, it is a significant point to raise in that discussion.

Mackie claims directly that all evil can’t be accounted for in this way, but neither offers a reason to think this, nor addresses the other reasons theists have given for the existence of evil.

And this last is important. Though he immediately goes on to discuss the free will defense, Mackie insists that it relies on the idea that absolutely all evil is the product of free will–and nothing else. This seems a sort of divide and conquer rhetorical trick that offers no real reason why these arguments can’t be taken together.

So, it is only because he has blurred the lines between the logical and the probabilistic versions of the argument, while simultaneously insisting that explanations which are typically given together must explain every case or be utterly rejected, that Mackie can dismiss the traditional answers to the problem of evil.

As to his discussion of the famous free will defense, I’ll get to that next.


The Nihilistic Grief Counselor

BattleRoyale2Huffington post has put an interesting article about dealing with grief as an atheist. I think it summarizes some fairly common sentiments nicely, and is worth a response for that reason.

Though I disagreed with most of it, I personally loved the opening–it was one of the few times that I’ve seen a popular statement of atheism admit that this is a tough question, and approach the subject with empathy. Typically, glib dismissals and accusations of emotional weakness are the response I’ve received to this question.

But I was still disappointed in the philosophy backed by the article. In fact, this subject seems to bring out one of the big contradictions I see in almost every secular philosophy I’ve encountered.

That is, an outward claim of commitment to tough-minded truth mixed with a certain unreflective sentimentality.

The writer emphasizes that he cares more about what is true than what is comforting. But, while that is praiseworthy in itself, the comfort he offers is all emotional gloss–all pathos without any real content.

Yes, when one is in the midst of grief, what is needed is someone who will just sit and weep with you. But, if one is seriously asking “what is your answer to the issue of death”, anything other than “it’s terrible, and it will ultimately destroy everything good that has been done” strikes me as insincere coming from an atheist.

As a case in point, the article quotes a poetic look at what a physicist might say at a funeral. All very lovely, but the comfort is a lie. Is it really an answer to death, after all, that the energy of a loved one’s body is still in the universe?

If that really makes one feel that that loved one lives on in some sense (which is exactly what the article is trying to say), then one is not very committed to truth. We don’t nostalgically save our shed skin and toenail clippings because we understand that the matter and energy that compose our bodies are not us. No one has ever scolded me for throwing out my garbage on the grounds that the energy in that trash once belonged to a human being.

To suggest that this should comfort us, then to say that one is an atheist because of a commitment to truth, is clearly inconsistent. Yet, that is exactly what this article does–and it is hardly alone in doing it.

Nor is was it convincing to read “your father is literally alive through you” from an atheist. Your father is literally dead, unless we’re willing to entertain the idea of an afterlife. That’s rather the point, and writing this line left me with the impression that the author doesn’t actually understand the atheism he’s preaching.

The worst philosophy put forward in the article is in the appeal to indifference. This idea that, since we aren’t bothered about not being alive sooner in the universe, we shouldn’t be bothered about death. Anyone who can’t see the difference between not having been born yet and dying without any hope of an afterlife has simply not thought very hard about the matter.

And this seems to keep coming up. When theists raise a question that materialists can’t answer, the response is usually some variation on “but that’s not important”. It’s rather like the sour grapes fable, and an attitude that stops thought. What it is not is a conclusion based on reason or evidence.

I don’t presume to tell people how they should grieve, but I do know that, once the emotions have passed, there are important questions about death. And the mix of unfounded sentimentality and dismissiveness in this article does not answer them. This kind of pathos masquerading as a tough-minded commitment to rationality is an affront to both hope and reason.

As to those who do try to answer them, they all seem to end either theism or despair.


Why are we Evil?

evil-insideFor the seventh and strongest of Smalley’s points in his “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Athiest”, he defers to Epicurus:

7. “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?” – Epicurus

And it’s easy to see why; this is a classic challenge to theism. (At least, it is a challenge to monotheism. Most forms of theism claim neither omnipotence nor goodness of their gods.)

But, formidable as it seems, it is based on no less a misunderstanding of Christianity than Smalley’s earlier points. To start, I find that most of those repeating this argument don’t actually know what omnipotence is.

That is, omnipotence is the ability to do anything that actually is a thing. Self-contradictions aren’t things that could ever be done, no matter how much power one has. Creating a married bachelor or a square circle aren’t tasks. They are simply meaningless arrangements of words.

This is significant because it is a self-contradiction to make someone freely do something. God creates people to be free creatures, meaning that we choose whether or not to do evil. No amount of power, not even omnipotence, can make someone freely be good.

And, when one thinks about it, this is also misunderstanding of evil. Goodness requires freedom. An act taken by a machine isn’t good or evil; only the actions of people free to choose have  a moral dimension to them. So, to rid the world of evil though forcing people to behave in certain ways is to simultaneously rid the world of good.

So, is a world with both good and evil in it (not to mention free will) superior to one with neither? I’d say so. And it definitely seems hard to prove that a good and omnipotent God would disagree.

There are many other answers that could be given to the problem of evil, but I’ll close with this:

If one agrees that evil does exist, and that it is something that a good God should stop (as opposed to simply being a matter of human opinion), how do we explain that? Really, if there is some absolute standard of morality, by which one presumes to indict God (who is neither human, nor a part of our culture), what is the basis of that morality? Answering that question, it has been shown, will lead one to postulate a good God.

Thus, it turns out that Smalley’s best reason to be an atheist is actually a reason to believe in God.


The Sugar-Coated Nightmare

chernobyl-the-destruction-of-the-nightI don’t usually agree with the philosophy I hear out of the atheist novelist Terry Pratchett.

I agree with this:

Rincewind stared, and knew that there were far worse things than Evil. All the demons in Hell would torture your very soul, but that was precisely because they valued souls very highly; evil would always try to steal the universe, but at least it considered the universe worth stealing. But the gray world behind those empty eyes would trample and destroy without even according its victims the dignity of hatred. It wouldn’t even notice them. (The Light Fantastic, p. 256)

On a Christian view, this is the core of all evil–nothingness, the tearing apart of reality, the end of things. And, given naturalism, this is exactly what all things will become, and what much of what we care about already is. The forces, not of evil in the fairy-tale sense, but of unthinking indifference will rip us apart, and rip apart everything we’ve ever known.

Not that I think most naturalists view life this way, and that is my point. Most prefer to avoid the topic of our ultimate fate, proposing instead that we focus on more short term thinking. I have to say that, like most philosophers, I find it hard to accept a position that answers fundamental questions with a kind of denial. It seems both more honest, and more courageous, to face them squarely.

Years ago, I found myself unable to turn away. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to name a piece of writing that reminds me so much of the last months before I became a Christian than the paragraph quoted here. At that time, even more than now, I would have been appalled at the pleasant glosses being put on naturalism. In fact, I was appalled when I was first accused of raising the subject disingenuously–as if the years I spent horrified by this prospect hadn’t actually happened.

But none of this is to say that naturalism isn’t true. It may well be that everything and everyone we’ve ever loved is being slowly destroyed by something that can’t understand the value of life and won’t remember us once we’re gone. But only a failure to face up to the reality of the situation, to stare into the darkness without blinking, could lead one to think that naturalism is anything but bleak.